We Run The World (Girls)

I recently pulled down my Peace Corps News RSS feed bar and these were the most recent headlines:

Peace Corps Volunteer…

  • Organizes livestock management project in Zambia
  • Helps community renovate school in Ethiopia
  • Helps open nurse training center in Mongolia
  • Improves water quality in Peru
  • Builds girls dorm in Malawi
  • Installs computer lab in Costa Rica elementary school

Speaking from my personal experience in East Java, most of my students have direct access to Facebook and Twitter via smart phones, computers are readily available, and most villages have doctors (-esque) on-call if something urgent happens. Being realistic as to what the people of East Java need, I am not here to build schools, dig wells, or convert vacant areas (what vacant areas?) for harvesting solar energy to provide electricity to entire villages (although, that would be pretty bomb-diggity). Could my community personally benefit from these things? Surely… but are they of dire need? Probably not. Could other parts of Indonesia use the aforementioned things much more than East Java? Definitely. It’s taken over a year of observation to gather a better idea of what people here could benefit from whether it makes ‘the feed’ or not.

Closing out my first year of teaching, I am making a new set of goals. Some are as simple as becoming more disciplined and overall quit empathizing with people who should be held accountable for their professional obligations. Other goals are more complex. Though making the cut on the Peace Corps RSS newsfeed doesn’t mean much and isn’t anything but tooting Peace Corps’ horn about Americans making a difference in underserved areas, I’d like unofficially toot PC Indonesia’s horn, because we’re pretty fantastic too… first though, some observations:

Gender. Where to begin? Understanding the social norms and perceptions of females in Indonesia. Am I digging myself in a hole? ‘Gender roles’ are clearly multifaceted. These two simple words, ‘gender’ and ‘roles’, combine to form one of the most sociologically puzzling concepts of all time. I could  (and likely will unintentionally) spend my entire life attempting to understand why gender roles are they way they are but ultimately never really end up getting ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is. Partially it is human nature, but the majority of today’s socially-acceptable notion of gender roles are a direct consequence of societal norms…CULTURE. They differ place to place. There’s endless layers that continue to develop over time (much like my SCOBY, Kombucha mother made of bacteria) that it’s taken me months to even formulate this post, so bear with me, please!

Indonesian gender roles seem pretty obvious, at least in many of the villages — but when you delve deeper, gender roles actually become more of an anomaly…

My host mother during training was/is a housewife. She married her husband around the ripe age of 12 or 13 and immediately started having children. Perhaps, her family didn’t have enough money to continue to pay her school fees, or maybe they didn’t see it as important. I have doubts that she would have wanted to start a family while still a child. I don’t know. During my ten weeks living with her family, she often stayed at home, sometimes watching her grandchildren, sometimes staring at the road, she cooked, cleaned, watched TV, napped, and occasionally went to the fields to hang out with farmers. The following day, it was usually the same routine. Her husband is a farmer and contributes most of the households income. They have it all, really. Their health (for the most part), a simple and comfortable home, fresh food provided daily by their farms, and most importantly a big family that supports one another. My host mother always seemed happy, smiling with what remaining teeth she had, but sometimes I wondered how she really felt, since this was all she had ever known, was she satisfied? I tried imagining myself in her position but that proved to be meaningless. I kept applying my own almost self-righteous beliefs without meaning to, thinking I’d probably die from a chronic case of monotony. It was hard to imagine my host mother’s untapped potential, she is a great cook, has a beautiful heart, but I didn’t know her well enough to think of the alternative, if she had been given the opportunities to do more. Nevertheless, imagining myself at 13, having children is a terrifying thought.

On the flip side, successful career women who have it all are becoming more common. Such is self-evident if you visit my school, where nearly 85% of the teachers are female and contribute half (or sometimes more) of their household’s income. Plus, I have a female principal. She holds a lot of power and knows how to operate a school (I’m lucky!), she knows the strengths and weaknesses of everyone, so well that people are intimidated by her, turned-off by her strict and disciplined manner. There’s no question that if she were a male and possessed these exact qualities, that people wouldn’t complain as much as they do. Upsetting. Surely this is a universal issue that most women in power experience.

While women dominate my school as professionals, I am constantly reminded that their roles as innate nurturers take precedent over their  careers — like when someone leaves during break to breastfeed their newborn or when their children get out of school early and are immediately dropped off in the teacher’s lounge, celebrating ‘go to work with your mother day’ sporadically throughout the year. When they do go home, their workday isn’t over. They still must cook, clean, do laundry, help the kids with homework, put them to bed, wake up in the middle of the night when their kids can’t sleep etc etc…, always showing up to work again the next day, so surely I can’t blame the handful of teachers who take naps in the teachers room or show up 20 minutes late to their classes, right? It’s gratifying to work with women here who can find that equilibrium, but it doesn’t mean I don’t go home in afternoons and not see the teen moms carrying around their babies back and forth just to pass time. What was their story?

The number of career women is rising but the honest truth is that there’s still thousands of people who think culture is an excuse to inhibit women from becoming more — from attaining their ultimate potentials —  from being perceived as something more than mere attractive breeding and cleaning machines. It’s impossible to alter the mindsets of all of those individuals but that doesn’t mean there’s not another route to empowering the women of Indonesia…

A few PCVs and I developed the idea to create a camp for our female students. Camp materials and activities were derived from informal chats that we’d had with students and people in our communities that made it clear young girls in East Java are facing various obstacles and challenges just for being young girls. The general challenges of being a young girl in East Java is really no different from being a young girl anywhere else. There’s no question, girls in other places in the world have it much harder. The menu reads the same everywhere, one questioning their self-worth, one building self-esteem, fitting in while resisting the black holes of peer pressure and reformative social norms, recognizing capabilities (women can play football! women can become astronauts!), understanding and taking care of one’s changing body, the list goes on. The camp soon materialized into our own twist of a Peace Corps establishment, Camp GLOW, which we cleverly added an ‘i’ to — Camp iGLOW — Indonesian Girls Leading Our World.

Created in 1995, by a group of PCVs serving in Romania, GLOW‘s objectives are to…

  • To foster a strong sense of self-esteem, self-reliance, and self-expression among young girls.
  • To encourage young women to become active citizens by building their self-esteem and confidence, increasing their self-awareness, and developing their skills in goal setting, assertiveness, and career and life planning.
  • To give young girls the opportunity to develop leadership skills, increase knowledge, and make a difference in their communities.

Every year since, all over the world, hundreds of camps and clubs have been formulated, tailored to fit the needs of host country communities. In Indonesia specifically, one of our primary objectives was to provide girls with important information, for example women’s health and career development, that wouldn’t otherwise be offered/taught by schools and in many cases, families.

After countless hours of planning over junk food, endless e-mail threads, and several sleepless nights, the first Camp iGLOW become. Hosted by a PCV’s very generous school, the camp spanned three days, jam-packed with interactive sessions on inner/outer beauty, gender roles and cultural expectations (accompanied by a very heavily edited version of Bend It Like Beckham), women’s health, educational opportunities, outbound activities (where girls got a taste of photography, crafts, soccer, and team-building), and lastly a performance night. There may or may not have been an impromptu dance party, Pitbull and Daft Punk were invited, don’t worry. Personally, one of the most rewarding moments for me was sitting in on the women’s health session where the girls had the chance to ask anonymous questions about various topics, it was clear that their curiosity was soaring, like insatiable appetites, eager to know, understand more, about their bodies. As the girls furiously jotted down notes, I felt that we were surely doing something right. Aside from the serious stuff, we really wanted the girls to build relationships with other girls outside of their communities.  Before handing out certificates to all of our 60-something participants of the first Camp iGLOW, we had the girls read a commitment together (in Indonesian):

  1. Commitment to yourself
    1. I promise to love myself for my beauty inside as well as out.
    2. I promise to never settle for anything less than what’s best for me in relationships, with my body, the opportunities I allow for myself and for my future.
    3. I promise to never give up on what I’m passionate about.
  2. Commitment to share knowledge w/women in your community
    1. I promise to share the skills and knowledge I’ve gained at Camp iGLOW with the other students at my school and members of my community.
    2. I promise to become a leader in advancing the role/image of women and girls at my school and in my community
  3. Commitment to promoting the image of strong women around the world
  4. I promise to continue working to promote a positive image of Indonesian women and women around the world.

(Totally cliche but I’m going to share it anyway) As the girls read the commitment together, most with an indescribable dignified level of courage and emotion, I felt chills that I’d never experienced before. Afterwards, upwards of about a million photos were taken and then everyone, completely exhausted, pulang‘ed.

Within all of the chaos, my friend Hannah was visiting me from Laos to help with the camp. I hadn’t seen her in over 18 months since she moved to Vientiane, Laos to teach English as a Princeton-in-Asia fellow. Having shared Indonesia and the camp with her for those few days will likely mean a lot more to me in the coming years because it was such a rewarding, and transformative experience in that it altered my perceptive of Indonesian youth. I had never worked with such a large group of eager and motivated youth since beginning my service here.

There were a few points of unsettling irony that left a scar on my first experience of running iGLOW:

  1. My principal wouldn’t permit girls from my school to go, for bogus reasons. During the camp, I couldn’t stop thinking about which girls I would have LOVED to join and who would have benefitted immensely from the weekend. I admit that I felt bitter when I saw all of the bonding going on between all of the other PCVs and their students. I’m not sure that I can pinpoint anything else that’s happened here as being more disappointing and having a lasting impression on me as this.
  2. One student who wanted to participate couldn’t because her father didn’t approve of our program
  3. One student who wanted to participate couldn’t because her mother was away and she had to stay home to clean and cook for her brother and father.

Since the first batch of PCVs whom I worked with have completed their service, I have made the promise to continue the momentum. PCV Natasha and I have just kicked off our initial brainstorming meeting with two enthusiastic CPs from my school. We are starting EARLY to gather more support, and we are ready to expand and improve from where we left off!

And yes, I did name the post after one of my favorite Beyonce songs — sick music video too.

March Hiccups

If I could summarize the teaching schedule for the month of March, I’d describe it as sparse, senseless, and VERY erratic. One week all of the 10th and 11th graders had ‘vacation’ while the 12th graders took practice tests for the Ujian Nasional (mandatory national examinations). The following week, school was ‘back on schedule’ except not really because all of the 11th graders, whom I teach, went to Bali for a study tour, I didn’t ikut (join) for two reasons…the first, because it overlapped with the beginning of Camp iGLOW (!) and second, because all of my become little puke-monsters as passengers on moving vehicles. I was under the impression that the week after the students returned from Bali the schedule would be normal again. I came to school, changed into my hideous civil servant khaki uniform and approached my counterpart who informed me that she would be giving tests to our students on material learned two weeks prior. Giving the students an exam on materials they learned that long ago without warning or review made no sense, it’s just setting them up for failure. Not only that, but my counterpart had created the test without me, which means it was littered with errors. But there was nothing I could do. I taught a total of 5 days during the month of March. I still managed to keep busy and active, here’s some highlights:

  • World Map Project progress!
  • Clara, one of my great friends from high school (who was an exchange student from Germany) stopped by Indonesia to visit me briefly!
  • Aside from the Coconut Accident at Jay’s (click here!), we still managed to make the trek out to Sukamade, a turtle conservation center in the middle of NOWHERE.  I always complain about how crowded East Java is and how I can’t escape the gasoline fumes or “halo mEEEST-erRRRRR’s” but Sukamade takes the cake for being the most peaceful place I’ve visited in Java so far.  The trek out there was an adventure in itself–passing rubber plantations, cacao plantations, and deserted beaches, spending over 6 hours vigorously jerking around in an unpromising-looking Jeep like rag-dolls, sweating uncontrollably, crammed in the backseat with Jay and John eating duku, going painstakingly S/L/O/W (think less than 5 mph) on a rocky pothole-ridden ‘road’ that makes the road in my village seem smooth as… iiiiiicing. Did I mention we forged a handful of rivers (see photo below, this was one of those times)? This was hands down the most daring car ride I’ve ever experienced. I have no idea what would have happened if we had run out gasoline. There was zero cell phone coverage, I had run out of water early on and we were in the middle of a jungle where the LP mentions the possibility of the Java Tiger still existing. Spending time with the turtles was pretty magical too. (Click on John’s name (above) for a more detailed account of our adventure.)
  • Hannah, my [first] best friend since we were 5 years-old, stopped by for the weekend to visit me after seeing Clara off, and to help out with the camp. I hadn’t seen Hannah in over a year and a half, since she left for Laos. It’s amazing to see a friendship like ours persist and to visit one another during each crucial chapter in our lives. She’s currently teaching at Vientiane College in Laos, where I’ll be visiting next weekend! During the short time that we did have together aside from the camp, Hannah developed a love affair with all things es and we explored at night Mojokerto (a first for me) … where we accidentally discovered a place that we’ve dubbed the ‘banana cave’. She brought back some pre-fried kerupuk as oleh-oleh (souvenirs) to Laos… gosh, it pains me to imagine, a life without kerupuk?!??!?!?!!?!
  • The first ever Camp iGLOW was a success (will save this for another post) with over 60 participants! Maggie, Lauren, Erika, and Natasha… we did it!

I am approaching my one year mark in Indonesia…aduh! I’m not going to lie, when I requested the Asia region during my initial Peace Corps interview, I was secretly hoping I would be placed anywhere but Indonesia, even though I essentially knew nothing about the country and its culture, even desolate Mongolia seemed more appealing than living in a society heavily influenced by religion. Obviously, living here for about a year has changed my perception greatly. There’s some days where I curse Indonesia for being so damn hot, but then I take a couple bucket baths and everything’s better again. Or I go on adventures like the one’s mentioned above where I am reminded how unique these experiences are, how things I do here would never ever happen in the States, or when in the span of three days, meeting a handful of highly motivated girls renews my sense of hope for the youth of Indonesia.

It’s tough here sometimes but all of that aside, I am a really lucky girl.